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Frankly, 2009 took us by surprise. With the economy in the dumps, we expected a slowdown in new camera and technology introductions, as manufacturers tried to milk their existing models and save on R&D and marketing. Were we wrong! This year saw a rush of innovation for both SLRs and point-and-shoots. Video-enabled SLRs went from a curiosity to a well-populated camera category. The Micro Four Thirds format found its 'micro,' producing several interchangeable-lens cameras that fit comfortably in your pocket. Creating sweeping panoramic photos became as simple as swinging your arm. And, as year end approached, both Canon and Nikon pushed the low-light envelope with SLRs boasting a maximum ISO 102,400 (sadly too late for review in time for these awards, but still worth a 'wow' here).
Without further ado, we present our picks for outstanding cameras in an outstanding year, chosen from systems reviewed by DigitalCameraInfo.com in 2009 before the November 1 deadline.
Camera of the Year – Canon EOS 5D Mark II – Review, Specs, $2700
With its extraordinary combination of very high 21.1-megapixel resolution with very low image noise, the full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mark II was destined for stardom based on still image quality alone. But this camera was also the first to make SLR video a serious professional-level capability, with groundbreaking 1080p 30 frame-per-second capture, complete with stereo sound and (after a firmware upgrade) control over shutter speed and aperture. With a ruggedly built weather-resistant chassis that’s surprisingly easy to maneuver for its size, a beautiful 3-inch 920,000-dot LCD and extensive customization options, the 5D Mark II is a true multimedia powerhouse.
This was the year when pocket-sized interchangeable lens digital photography became a reality, and the Lumix GF1 is the best of this new breed. The 12.1-megapixel GF1 delivers the sharpness and overall image quality we expect from a full-size SLR in a camera that’s not much bigger than many point-and-shoots. Contrast-detect autofocus is fast and effective, and 720p movie mode produces handsome results in both compact AVCHD and Motion JPEG formats. There’s no optical viewfinder, but the optional electronic viewfinder is a reasonable substitute, and even in this compact body, Panasonic managed to incorporated a useful pop-up flash.
The HX1 is our pick for the most innovative camera because it went beyond the usual point-and-shoot feature set: the camera uses the smarts of the Bionz processor to capture and process multiple images to create a single image. What this means is that it can capture much more attractive low light images, smooth panoramas and sharper images of fast-moving objects.
We saw the first cameras using the new Micro Four Thirds camera format last year, but the format began to mature with the Olympus E-P1. This was the first camera to deliver on the Micro Four Thirds promise of cameras with the compact size of point and shoots, but with the feature and image quality of an SLR. It's certainly not perfect, but the E-P1 shows that there is still room for innovation within the SLR camera space.
As well as the innovative features that won it the award above, the HX1 is our pick for the Ultrazoom point and shoot Select award. The HX1 has pretty much every feature that a user will need: a long 20x zoom, decent 9.1 megapixel resolution and a great screen that can flip up and down for more flexible shooting. The ability to capture high quality 1080p HD video is the icing on this cake, while the impressive sweep panorama and low light shooting modes are the cherries on top that sweeten the deal. It is an expensive camera, but it's worth every penny.
Canon packed a lot of features into the SX1 IS1; it has an impressive 20x zoom lens and shoots sharp 10 megapixel images and very attractive HD video. And the SX1 IS is very easy to use, with an articulating screen that makes shooting self portraits and awkward angles simple. But we found that the HX1 had a slight edge in terms of image quality, producing slightly sharper images with less distortion. Combine that with the fact that the SX1 costs more than the HX1, and the Sony is the better deal.
Most compact point and shoots are about compromise; the smaller ones lack features, while the more fully featured ones are pocket busters. The Panasonic DMC-ZS3 walks the line between these two extremes: it is compact and easy to use, but still has the features to allow you to take great pictures. It boasts a long 12x zoom lens, shoots attractive 10 megapixel images and 720p HD video and has a very effective image stabilizer for run-and-gun shooting. It's not perfect ( low light images are a little noisy, and images are a bit soft at the longer zoom settings), but it provides a great portable package for the casual shooter at a reasonable $300.
The HZ15W is another feature-packed camera that fits into the pocket. It includes a 10x zoom lens with a 28mm wide setting which is great for shooting groups and takes images with very good sharpness. It shares the noise problem of the ZS3, though; we found that images taken in low light at the higher ISO settings where extremely noisy. However, the ZS3 was the better camera, with a longer zoom and slightly better image quality.
Serious photographers need a camera that takes great photos and offers the creative freedom to get the desired result. The Canon 5D Mark II has this in spades: in our tests it took photos with very accurate color, low noise, wide dynamic range and good sharpness. It also has fast shooting (at up to 3.8 frames a second at full resolution) and excellent customization; there are three sets of custom settings on the mode dial for easy switching. In addition, it is the first SLR to capture 1080p video, and this video looked great, with good color and smooth movement. The 5D Mark II is expensive, but it's a workhorse camera for the serious shooter.
The Nikon's D3x is a heavyweight camera in many ways. This 24 megapixel camera earned top scores in our tests for sharpness and color and very good scores elsewhere, but it weighs in at a shoulder-cracking 43 ounces without a lens. With a weight like that, this is not a camera for taking out and about, but it's a great pick for studio shooting, and this camera allows a huge degree of customization, which makes for easy switching from one shooting setup to another.
Yes, we know – our Consumer SLR of the year isn’t technically an SLR, since it lacks a mirror box. But if we can get sharp, handsome photos and good-looking video from a camera that accepts interchangeable lenses, offers extensive manual controls and still fits in a coat pocket, we’re willing to stretch a bit and give an award based on function rather than mechanical form. The GF1 offers a better Live View mode than any true SLR we’ve tried and, if you want to shoot with the camera held to your eye (which we often do), there’s an optional electronic viewfinder that not only provides this capability, but pivots 90 degrees to make it more flexible and comfortable than a standard optical viewfinder.
Runner Up – **Nikon D5000*** – Review, Specs, $719
*The Nikon D5000, which broke new ground as the first video-enabled SLR below the $1000 barrier, excels in handling difficult conditions, delivering low image noise and good color accuracy when the lights are turned down low. We have issues with so-so image sharpness, but the advantages of Nikon lens compatibility, well-designed controls and menus, extensive in-camera editing options and an articulated screen to simplify off-angle shooting make this our favorite consumer-priced true SLR.
The Micro Four Thirds Lumix G1 won our Select Award for Most Innovative Camera in 2008, with its compact size and quick autofocus, but video shooting was noticeably lacking. Panasonic exceeded our expectations when filling this gap with the GH1, the only interchangeable-lens still-plus-video camera that offers practical continuous autofocus while shooting movies. A key factor in the success of this feature is a beautiful 10x zoom lens that focuses silently, so your lovely visuals won’t be marred by a soundtrack from hell. Combined with extensive video controls that include aperture, shutter speed and ISO plus fine adjustment of white balance and color, the GH1 focus capability makes shooting movies of subjects that move practical – and isn’t that really the point.
The smooth 1080p video captured by the 5D Mark II offers impressively low image noise and accurate color reproduction. When the camera shipped in January it lacked key manual exposure controls when shooting video, but a mid-year software upgrade solved this problem authoritatively, with exposure, aperture and shutter speed adjustment all now available. In a close race between the Panasonic GH1 and the 5D Mark II for Video SLR honors, the decision ultimately came down to the Panasonic edge in ease of handling, affordability and, most crucially, whisper-quiet continuous autofocus.